HC Deb 12 July 2004 vol 423 cc1110-2
2. Mr. Peter Pike (Burnley) (Lab)

What measures he is taking against legal advisers facilitating unfounded claims for (a) asylum and (b) applications for work permits. [183085]

The Minister for Citizenship and Immigration (Mr. Desmond Browne)

An unfounded immigration application is not in itself proof of any wrongdoing on the part of the legal adviser or, indeed, of any adviser involved. However, the provision of immigration advice is a matter of concern to the Government. The Lord Chancellor has taken steps through the Legal Services Commission to improve the quality of advice provided by publicly funded solicitors and the immigration services commissioner is taking steps to raise the quality of legal advice provided by those whom he regulates. It is, of course, a criminal offence to provide immigration advice when unqualified so to do and it is also a criminal offence for anyone, including a legal adviser, to facilitate entry to the United Kingdom in contravention of the immigration rules. Evidence of any such activity will be thoroughly investigated by the immigration and nationality directorate, which will take appropriate action.

Mr. Pike

I would certainly not like to suggest that there were some dodgy solicitors, but there is clear evidence of some solicitors dragging cases along for a long time and misleading those whom they are representing on asylum and work permit cases. How many prosecutions have there been and, if there have been any, what has been the outcome of the action taken?

Mr. Browne

My hon. Friend, with characteristic shrewdness and subtlety, is right to emphasise the importance of confidence in advice in this area of public policy, particularly from the legal profession. As a matter of fact, 12 immigration advisers have been prosecuted by the immigration service in 2003–04 and 11 convictions were secured. In 2003, the office for the supervision of solicitors, the disciplinary arm of the Law Society, took disciplinary action against three solicitors in connection with immigration advice, one of whom was struck off, one given an indefinite suspension and one fined. Furthermore, the Legal Services Commission advises that, in London alone, 96 firms did not have their contract extended in the current financial year.

Mr. Julian Brazier (Canterbury) (Con)

How many of those 12 cases referred to work permits? Does the Minister accept that the quadrupling of the number of work permits each year, including for a new category of completely unqualified people in sectors such as the leisure industry, is simply an invitation for such advisers to suggest to those already here that it is a good way of getting round immigration rules?

Mr. Browne

I am not in a position to answer the hon. Gentleman's specific question in relation to numbers. If the figures are available, I will write to him with the information, though I am not sure that that sort of information is collected separately. The main thrust of his attack, of course, is about the increasing number of people permitted to work in this country through permits in response to a set of circumstances that he may find difficulty in identifying—a growing labour market in which there are difficulties with the availability of skills and labour in some sectors.

I know that, as part of its five-point plan, the hon. Gentleman's party announced that it would put quotas on work permits. Of course, to do that it would have to turn its back on its traditional approach to the labour market, which is to allow the labour market to generate demand. It may well intend to do that. If so, perhaps at some stage it will tell the House and the country how it proposes to put such a control on the work force in the United Kingdom, where 2 million more people are now working who were not in 1997.

Mr. Tony McWalter (Hemel Hempstead) (Lab/Coop)

Does my hon. Friend accept that the thrust of the question is about inefficiency on the part of legal officers rather than criminal activity? Does he also accept that when it comes to evaluating efficiency, the scandal of firms wasting loads of money before finally telling their clients, "Your best bet is to go and see your MP", needs structural correction in the legal profession?

Mr. Browne

As Minister with responsibility for this matter, I am concerned about inefficiency, bad advice and possible illegal advice. That is why, in answering the question asked by my hon. Friend the Member for Burnley (Mr. Pike), I identified a number of criminal prosecutions and went on to speak about the other steps that are being taken.

My hon. Friend the Member for Hemel Hempstead (Mr. McWalter) will know that we intend to use the Asylum and Immigration (Treatment of Claimants, etc.) Bill, which comes before the House later today, to increase the powers of the immigration services commissioner and improve his ability to regulate designated professional bodies. There are also provisions for unqualified advisers working for solicitors to be adequately supervised, which goes to the heart of the issue that my hon. Friend identified. Indeed, there will be a new criminal offence of advertising for an unqualified person to be an immigration adviser and a new power to enter the premises of suspected rogue advisers. It is the Government's view that we will then have an array of powers that will attack both inefficiency and illegality in advice.

Mr. Dominic Grieve (Beaconsfield) (Con)

May I first pass on the apologies of my right hon. Friend the Member for Haltemprice and Howden (David Davis) for not being present this afternoon?

I note that the Minister neatly side-stepped the issue of work permits. Does he agree that there is absolutely no reason for legal advisers to be involved in applications for work permits? They certainly were not in the past. Does he also agree that legal advisers are now associated with applications for work permits because of the perception that the misuse of the work permit system can facilitate entry into this country, which was exactly what went on with self-employed people in Bucharest—

Mr. Browne

That was entry clearance.

Mr. Grieve

It was entry clearance for the purpose of working in this country. Would the Minister now like to answer the question with specific reference to work permits?

Mr. Browne

I answered the question asked by the hon. Member for Canterbury (Mr. Brazier) with specific reference to work permits, but I could not give him the specific information that he required. As I have not managed to get that information since I gave that answer, I shall have to write to the hon. Member for Beaconsfield (Mr. Grieve) if he is interested in that information as well.

The point about legal or other advice on whether someone is fit to have a work permit is well made. It is perhaps not necessary for people to take advice because the work permit application system is comparatively straightforward, but of course the question did not relate only to legal advice, but to advice per se. I have no idea why people should be motivated to take legal advice on an application for a work permit. We would have to ask them that. The hon. Gentleman is a member of the legal profession and he will not want to be involved in closing that business down to his colleagues or perhaps to himself, if he still practises.

If people choose to take that advice, it is a matter entirely for them. The Government's responsibility is to ensure that that advice, on immigration matters when it is given, is legal, efficient and, if it involves public money, offers good value. I do not think that the Tory party is suggesting in opposition that, were it in government, it would interfere with people's free choice on who should advise them.